Very few of the fiction writers I know define themselves as artists. Most of us write popular fiction, which lots of people think is anti-art by definition. We’d have to be gluttons for public derision to stand up and say, “Yes, I’m a literary artist, and my preferred form is the cozy.” Yet, to my well-trained eye (all those degrees, research, and years spent teaching in universities occasionally add up to something), many popular fiction writers produce exquisite novels of substance, style, and beauty. Many of them are, gasp, the lowest of the low: Romance writers. Eek. Surely everybody knows you can’t be an artist if you’re writing romance.
Most of my writer friends distance themselves from viewing their work as art. In fact, a reputation as an artist in the world of working writers seems to carry more negative connotations than positive. The writer as artist is frequently perceived as having great faith in his own talent and skill (arrogance). He is dedicated to his own vision (lacking in perspective and awareness of audience, as well as being resistant to revision and editing). He is more sensitive than the average person (defensive and unable to take criticism of any sort), and subject to the whims of his frequently absent muse (doesn’t make deadlines and doesn’t give his editor a heads up). The writer as artist is, in short, a pain in the butt. He is not professional.
Several months ago I had an experience that brought home to me that without realizing it, I’ve drifted into viewing writers who think of themselves as artists as amateurs. I do a little freelance editing on the side, and I happened across a piece of ‘literary fiction,’ repped by a well-regarded agent, and worthy in many of the ways that popular fiction is generally assumed not to be. It was exactly the kind of book I could see being heralded as ‘art.’ I found many flaws in the manuscript. Really big, story level problems that had a lot to do with the lack of narrative skill, motivation, conflict . . . basic stuff.
I found myself thinking that if the piece had been popular fiction, I would never tolerate such sloppy work. But since it was literary, well, maybe it didn’t matter. Standards aren’t as high. Literary writers do all sorts of clumsy things in the name of art. A lot of literary writers are good at capturing a poignant moment or an arresting insight, and wrapping them up with catchy metaphors, analogies and whatnot. But, in my estimation, if that’s all you’ve got, and you can’t put your language skills to good use at the story level, too, you’re an amateur.
I caught myself. Standards aren’t as high. In literary fiction. Really? Did I really just think that? It’s the complete opposite of the party line still believed by a lot of teachers, librarians, professors, and people who think about the relative merits of different types of fiction. It’s the opposite of what I was taught.
How did I come to this?
By reading a lot. Writing a lot. Teaching writing a lot. Teaching readers how to critique texts. Doing research in literacy communities, including non-academic ones like those of romance readers and writers. Talking to readers and writers of many sorts. Writing scores of novel reviews. Talking to other professors, teachers and librarians who find a wide range of popular fiction as meaningful, valuable and artful as good literary fiction. Listening to editors and agents. All that and more.
The issue isn’t that some literary fiction is amateurish. Of course, it is. That’s true of every genre. The issue is that there is such a rich array of art in the places where, as communities of readers, we still find it generally accepted that there isn’t much of value. Have those writers who have been barred from the Art Party created a successful dodge around how literary art is defined? It can be pretty convincing.
It wasn’t cool for me to allow a lower standard for that piece of literary fiction. I would be angry if an editor approached my books with the attitude that ‘it’s only romance, so why try to make it good.’ Everyone will be relieved to know that I revised my approach. All the literary fiction that comes my way receives the best edit I can offer, bringing to bear all I’ve learned about what makes an artful story.
I’m curious how the rest of your see your writing—is it art? Do you have prejudices against applying that word to fiction like I do? Are there other considerations that keep writers from self-identifying as artists? Or do you see yourself as an artist and your fiction as art? What do those words mean in terms of your writing? There’s a lot of contested territory here.